How Google turned employees into philanthropists in 2012

A new effort that used technology to boost giving resulted in big donations to hunger-related charities this holiday season.

The logo for Google's 2012 hunger campaign.
The logo for Google's 2012 hunger campaign. Google

Pop quiz: How did Google get its employees to donate nearly 800,000 meals to charity this holiday season?

The answer, it turns out, was a quiz.

The company distributed a 10-question quiz to as many of its 30,000 employees as it could reach, designed to educate them about world hunger issues. The quiz came with an appealing hook: Google gave every employee who completed the quiz $10 to donate to a hunger charity of their choosing.

The quiz was a hit: more than 6,000 people took it. Google offices in 41 countries participated. In Mountain View alone, hundreds of employees descended upon a local Costco and bought more than 27,000 pounds of food, filling an 18-wheel truck. The Mountain View office donated $800,000 to the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Philanthropy at Google is nothing new, but the company's approach is. As the holidays approached this year, the company's social responsibility team started brainstorming ideas for a charity campaign that would make a bigger, more concentrated impact.

The company had never previously mounted a holiday giving campaign around the world. Employees on the philanthropy team decided to take existing efforts inside the company and help them to scale around the world. It was, in short, an effort to make charity at Google more Googley.

It was also an effort to rally Googlers around a cause -- something that doesn't always come naturally to the independent thinkers at Google.

"Sometimes being Googley means you're doing your own thing," said Diane Solinger, who helped to organize this year's campaign. "Being Googley together is part of our team's charter. We want us to feel connected. And so rather than reinvent the wheel and say 'We're going to do X ourselves,' we looked to where Googlers are already doing things. We said, let's add some fuel to that fire."

Google's Diane Solinger.
Google's Diane Solinger. Google

Solinger and her team found that hunger and food security issues were important to Googlers around the world. Several senior vice presidents serve on the boards of nonprofits devoted to fighting hunger, and the company saw employees participate in an Action Against Hunger effort during Ramadan. The Mountain View office's Costco trip is a longstanding and beloved tradition. Hunger seemed like an ideal cause to work in during the holidays.

Employees worked on the campaign in their 20 percent time, writing a quiz that could be shared with as many Googlers as possible, designing a logo, and writing code to support the campaign on the back end. (Jessan Hutchison-Quillian, a Google software engineer, wrote code that allowed employees to make a donation simply by swiping their badges.)

Once it was finished, the team advertised the quiz via e-mail, word of mouth, and placards at tables in Google cafeterias. Individual offices were encouraged to design their own campaigns to benefit local organizations. An Illinois office did a benefit for the Greater Chicago Food Depository; the New York team contributed to Hurricane Sandy relief.

"The people here really have a desire to do good," said Hutchison-Quillian, based in the Seattle office, where his teammates volunteered with an organization called Food Lifeline. "But we have so much on our own plates that it's really hard to make the time to go figure out where's the place where I can really make a difference. That's what made this campaign great -- we take away all the complexity of deciding where to give."

 

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